My Alpha experience – why I consider the course to be cynical and dishonest
The Independent recently ran an article gushing with praise for the Alpha Course, calling it “British Christianity’s biggest success story“. I can understand that in a world where results are what gets you noticed, but having attended an Alpha Course once upon a time, I still find it both appalling and wryly amusing that the church is putting so much weight on a course that’s so fundamentally dishonest.
I went on the course at a time when I was feeling uncertain of my faith, the best part of ten years ago. I thought a return to the basics might be just what I needed, so I booked myself in and prepared to ask my questions.
Before I go any further, and to forestall common defences of Alpha, I want to emphasise that I was under no illusions about the theology of the course, but that was what I wanted at the time, and I desperately wanted to believe. I also know that courses vary massively in tone and content, even though this is against the wishes of Nicky Gumbel and Holy Trinity Brompton, but the course I attended worked through the standard videos and books. What I experienced was the very core of Alpha.
The first couple of weeks were pleasant and inoffensive. Gumbel’s video talks were relatively vague and platitudinous, but our group had some interesting discussions. Some knew nothing about Christianity, some knew quite a lot, and one guy was always asking about Islam, which was a bit odd, and suggested he was probably attending the wrong course. The one thing that puzzled me was that no one was prepared to correct obvious errors and misunderstandings.
That all started to change soon enough. When Gumbel introduced the Bible, suddenly all the fluff was moved to one side. A couple of weak, hackneyed arguments about the provenance of the Bible were rushed through as if they had a train to catch, and from that point on, it was expected that any question could be resolved by appealing to the Bible as an infallible book of rules.
It was also about this time that the course organisers started to get far more involved. From not correcting misunderstandings, suddenly they were pretty obviously starting to tell everyone what to think. I’ve since read Gumbel’s book on running an Alpha Course, and this is what they’re told to do – avoid correction or criticism for the first few weeks, then start hitting them hard with the party line. It’s a deliberate strategy.
When I’m asked to describe Alpha, the phrase I use most often is bait-and-switch. The whole thing is based on the idea of friendly discussion, but quickly becomes an RE lesson. We have some old fragments of parchment containing copies of Biblical texts, therefore we can assume that it’s all 100% true. We’re just going to talk about some issues, except for when we go off on the Holy Spirit Weekend!
The what? Yes, you read correctly – the Holy Spirit Weekend.
I could say a lot of things about the Holy Spirit Weekend. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I think it’s also deeply cynical and manipulative. Everyone goes away somewhere to learn about the Holy Spirit. Why do you need to go away for a weekend? Because the unspoken intention is that the new hothouse environment will facilitate a spiritual experience that will get you hooked. One session is even called “How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?”
Clever churches get some church members to come along as well, ostensibly to help out on a more intensive weekend, but it also has the handy advantage of helping to create the right atmosphere. A bunch of confused Brits aren’t an ideal group if you want to encourage ecstatic spiritual experiences, but throw in a few people who know the drill (trust me, there is one) and it tips the balance considerably.
The weekend is at the heart of the entire course. The first few weeks deal with some basic housekeeping and weed out timewasters, and then they want you to be hooked as soon as possible. So they take you off somewhere strange, fill the place with music and people speaking strange languages, and wait for the payoff.
After that, the rest of the course seems slightly dull, stacking additional layers on top of what’s previously been discussed. If you’re in by this point, you’ll lap it up. If not, it’s just more data on what Christians believe, which will probably leave you cold, but might possibly be enough to convince you to “graduate” to church at the end of the course.
You might have gathered that I’m not a fan. I think the course is dishonest in its advertising and its arguments, sometimes manipulative, and always cynical. Finding out quickly moves into being taught, and then into emotional exploitation in unfamiliar group settings, all step by step, like a frog being boiled alive.
If a recognised cult was behaving like this, you wouldn’t be surprised.